Labor and do not be weary

“An American businessman was standing on the jetty in a Mexican coastal village when a small boat with several large yellowfin tuna and just one fisherman docked. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it had taken to catch them.
“The Mexican replied, ’Only a little while.’
“The American then inquired why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish. The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, ‘But what do you do with the rest of your time?’
“The Mexican said, ‘I sleep late, fish a little, play with children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, Senor.’
“The American scoffed, ‘I am a Harvard MBA and can help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With your increased profit, you would buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, then open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small fishing village and move to Mexico City, then Los Angeles and ultimately New York.’
“‘But Senor, how long would this all take?’
“To which the American replied, ‘Fifteen to twenty years.’
“’But what then, Senor?’
“The American laughed and said that was the best part. ‘When the time is right, you would sell your company and become very rich. You would make millions.’
“’Millions, Senor? Then what?’
“The American said, ‘Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you would sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.’”[1]
Sixteenth century Protestant Reformers, particularly John Calvin, were the first to articulate what we call the Protestant work ethic.[2] Rooted in Scripture passages including today’s epistle lesson,[3] the Protestant work ethic teaches that visible signs of success – prosperity, upward mobility, and economic influence – distinguish God's elect. The Protestant work ethic spurred economic activity, broke down class barriers and has been responsible, in great measure, for Western Christianity’s economic hegemony during the last four centuries.[4]
Unfortunately, the Protestant work ethic tends to glorify economic activity to the exclusion of life’s other aspects. The Harvard MBA’s plan simply restores joys to the Mexican fisherman he already has. Tragically, Congregational missionaries from New England, steeped in Calvinism, imported the Protestant work ethic to Hawai’i. They regarded native Hawaiians as lazy, content with their subsistence lifestyle rather than striving to accumulate wealth. These missionaries were blind to the richly textured, non-monetary aspects of Hawaiian life. Here as in Mexico and elsewhere, the Protestant work ethic reinforced racial and ethnic bigotry.
What does today’s epistle reading really teach?
First, the Semitic phrase “to eat bread” connotes making a living, both literally and figuratively.[5] Jesus, for example, worked as a carpenter. Legend has it that he made the best ox yokes in Palestine.[6] In addition to paid work, “to eat bread” connotes homemaking, raising children, and volunteer activities. Like Jesus, find work well-suited to your individual gifts and abilities. Then, following Paul’s guidance, perform that work, whether paid or unpaid, as a service, an offering, to God. Tony Campolo, an evangelical preacher and sociologist, vividly remembers a picture hanging on the wall of his childhood Sunday school room. An old shoemaker with his head bowed in prayer sat at his workbench. A beam of light shone down on him, obviously, representing God's presence. But the picture was truly memorable because a steady stream of shoes ascended through the beam of light, toward God.[7] Work done as an offering to God connects us with others and infuses our lives with meaning and value.[8]
Second, the text carves out essential exceptions for those unable to work (such as the disabled) and those unable to find employment. Unemployment and disability compensation are vital components of our community’s social safety net and tangibly express love for our neighbor. The Christian objection to employable individuals collecting welfare for lengthy periods is not its cost to taxpayers but its cost to recipients. Unemployment erodes self-esteem and hope. Systemically, multi-generational dependence on welfare promotes the emergence of a permanent underclass. We need look no further than Honolulu to see these pernicious effects. Christians support policies and programs designed to end multi-generational poverty.
Finally, Paul’s very act of writing to the Thessalonian Christians emphasizes the importance of healthy relationships, creating and appreciating art, expanding knowledge and cultivating one’s spirituality. Almost everyone – regardless of age or abilities – can engage in those activities. Paul earned his living as a tentmaker while evangelizing the Gentile world. Conversely, he described the Thessalonian idlers as truants.[9] Truants waste God's gift of life mindlessly watching TV, playing video games non-stop and so forth. My opening anecdote pointed to the irony of accumulating wealth to enjoy good things in the future that we can enjoy today.
May God grant us work that contributes to the world and enriches life; may God help us to always do this work as an offering unto God. Amen.
Sermon preached the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 17, 2019
Church of the Holy Nativity, Honolulu, HI

[1] Danah Zohar and Ian Marshall, SQ: Spiritual Intelligence, the Ultimate Intelligence (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), pp. 282-283.
[2] Max Weber coined this phrase in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
[3] 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13.                                               
[4] Roger B. Hill, “Protestantism and the Protestant Ethic,” 1996. Accessed 15 October 2004 at from Christine O’Keeffe’s “Tartan History.”
[5] Leon Morris, The First and Second Epistles to the Thessalonians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), p. 253.
[6] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: 2 Thessalonians (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 218.
[7] Tony Campolo, Everything You've Heard Is Wrong (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992), p. 158.
[8] Bill Hybels, Honest to God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. 139.
[9] William Barclay, Daily Study Bible: 2 Thessalonians (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), pp. 217-218.


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