On earth, the cryosphere – the frozen water – is melting. The oceans are getting hotter and rising. Parts of the world are becoming too hot to live in. The forests are burning. In Nova Scotia, my home province, we see it happening, watching from the shoreline. The ocean feels different. The life in it seems different. The tide rises a little higher each year, and the hurricanes hit shore a little harder. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. We see what is happening. We are lucky, because we can stand on the beach, or the city sidewalk, or the edge of the trees, and sip our lattes, and worry. But not really do anything. Our lives don’t really have to change. Our lot is nothing compared to poorer, more populated parts of the world.
And Paul says to us, a voice from another time: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”
And those words should shake us out of fingers-crossed reverie.
But will they?
In the United States, this particular passage from Paul was recently cited to argue for reducing welfare payments. But of course this is not what the Apostle Paul meant at all. We have to read the gospel in its entirety, and Jesus never said: let the poor, or the unfortunate starve.
And yet there is Paul saying: no work, no food. Who is he talking to? To us. His audience is very specific. He is speaking to a crowd that has just heard the promise of the resurrection and the life of the world to come. Have they decided for themselves that life here no longer matters? Are they lying around, saying a few prayers, waiting, hoping, praying for God to take care of things?
Some of us, Paul says, are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. To those, he says, work quietly, and earn your living. To those are able to work, but unwilling—to those who have chosen to not make a contribution—to those who have not heard the real point of the gospel—Paul says, yes, God takes care of us, but God wants us to take care of each other.
When it comes to climate change, it is fair to say that we have been a lot like those shiftless Thessalonians, lying around and praying for God to take care of things, in our next lives. It will all work out anyway, so why work? We were idle, and let it happen. We have been busybodies, and argued over how to fix it. Now, we have no choice: we are recycling our garbage, and piling sandbags, and hoping it will be enough.
And yet, when we turn to this morning’s gospel what do we hear: Jesus describing a world that sounds an awful lot like our modern one – nations rising against nations, famines and earthquakes. The followers of Jesus are nervous: if he leaves, what will happen to them? And what does Jesus say – the worst answer of all. It is going to be a heck of a mess, danger, death, devastation. You are going to have a rough time. But you will get through it, eventually. Not especially reassuring words from our Saviour.
In this passage, Jesus is preparing the followers for the chaos to come, not promising to save us from it entirely. Jesus is saying, work in the midst of that chaos, fight the good fight, and your endurance will save your soul.
Where is the place of prayer then. Does it do any good?
Prayer can take many forms, all valuable in the life of a believer. We pray in thankfulness. We pray looking for an answer. We pray for comfort. We pray for advice. We pray for release. We pray to be mindful. But those are inward exercises – we are looking for change within ourselves, for God to stir up something inside. We want to get better, or be better, or feel better. And so we pray.
But how often do we pray to stay alert? This is the kind of prayer that guides us to watch for those who would pretend to be the voice of God. It is the kind of prayer that teaches us to see the external world as it truly is. The kind of prayer that sees the rising tide and makes a plan. The kind of prayer that decides the work that needs to be done. This is the prayer that asks: what am I not seeing? How I am being fooled? In the middle of this chaos, what should I be doing?
What work must I do to be truly fed?
We might consider prayer the work of faith, but it is only one part of the work of faith. The people of Thessalonica believed in Jesus, and I suspect while, lying around, they prayed a lot. But it is not enough, Paul says. Prayer must also lead to a higher awareness of the world, and once we become aware of what the world needs, how can we not work?
I think of it this way: should we pray to God to get through a bad storm? Of course we should. If we only prayed for God to take care of things, would our survival be guaranteed? We know it wouldn’t. The gospel gave us free will for a reason: we are to work for each other in God’s name.
The truth is, we have dropped the ball, and we know it. We are like the Thessalonians. We didn’t do the work we needed to do, and now here we are, teetering on environmental disaster. Indeed, Paul’s words have never been more potent: if we do not work now, we may not eat.
Get up, and get going, the Paul of our second lesson would say if he was here. Do not weary in doing what is right.
For as Jesus says: “by our endurance we will gain our souls.”