Idle Worshippers


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Tough talk!

Let me read again the words we heard in the Second Lesson—words of St. Paul to the leaders of a church that he helped to establish.

He writes, “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.”

Paul says that he and his fellow leaders “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.” An example of hard work for the church.

At end of the passage, he reiterates the charge of laziness: “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.”

Paul mentions “idleness” three times in a single paragraph! Clearly, the Thessalonians haven’t measured up to the standard Paul set for them!

Paul was especially annoyed at lazy Christians because he himself was working two jobs. In those days, Christian pastors and evangelists were expected to provide their own means of material support. They first had paid jobs and then they did church work in their spare time.

As Paul mentioned, he himself worked. He reveals in another text that he was a “tent-maker.” This was a very convenient occupation for a traveling evangelist, since tents were needed pretty much everywhere at that time. Paul could earn money for his expenses at the same time that he went around the Mediterranean world, preaching and teaching.

Paul labored long hours for God and he expected other Christians to give themselves to the service of the church. Every Christian should do his or her part to build up the Body of Christ.

I suppose most of us share this ideal. The problem is that, practically speaking, it’s just not possible to expect every church member to fill their time with Christian service.

Our own parish shows this. In Manhattan, people have a lot to do outside of their congregation.

Some of our members have young children to care for and shepherd around to all kinds of activities. Others need to work long hours days and weekends to keep their jobs. Other members live far away or are involved in other projects.

It would be ridiculous to accuse such people of being “idle!” In fact, they would love to be able to follow Paul’s advice! They would be grateful to have more time to come to church and relax and pray, or to help those in need, or to study the Bible; they just can’t find the time or the energy.

And there is another category of Christians who would likely resent being called, “idle.” They are fortunate enough to be able to fit lots of church work into their schedules. So their problem is the opposite of those who can’t find the time for Christian service. Their problem is that they work too much for the church!

For instance, we at Incarnation hold our Christmas Fair on December 6 and 7, and after that, we have special services scheduled. People who labor long hours at the Fair or these other events will feel exhausted by the time Christmas comes!

As it happens, Paul has a warning for these church members, too. He says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing right.” In other words, they should be careful of wearing themselves out–even in the service of God.

So, then, does no one deserve Paul’s hard words? Are we all free of the charge of idleness?

Well, however we apply his advice to ourselves, there is an important theological issue at stake. The traditional name of the issue is “sloth.”

Sloth is one of what are known as the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s the human failing that Paul was worried about—idleness is a form of sloth.

It’s called a deadly sin because sloth is deadening! If you can’t motivate yourself to do what you know you can and ought to do, then even if you have the purest faith and noblest ideals, you’ll accomplish nothing.

In a spiritual sense, you can be slothful even if you aren’t “idle.” You can pray less than you want to, or you can neglect to pray for people whom you know need your support. Or you can fail to organize your life efficiently, and wind up spinning your wheels instead of doing God’s work.

Yet, as Paul implies, you can choose to break the pattern of sloth. Instead of feeling guilty about your accomplishments, you can take a broader spiritual look at your situation.

If there’s some negative energy inside you that’s weighing you down and keeping you from doing what you want to do, you can ask God for help in breaking the pattern.

I’ll take my own problems in this area as examples. While I live an active life and am rarely “idle” in the sense of “doing nothing,” there are many ways that I am slothful.

Anyone who has seen my office will know how I procrastinate in doing paperwork. I’m also prone to asking staff members to take care of matters that I should do myself. I don’t follow up on problems, I let things slide—many kinds of sloth! (And, of course, because I earn my living working full-time for the church, I don’t have to fit my Christian service into my leisure hours.)

The reality is that we often fail to do what we might on behalf of God’s kingdom. So as the busy Christmas season approaches, we should ask God for guidance in using our time wisely, choosing the work that is most needed even if it is least pleasurable—and, given our other duties outside the church, pulling our weight as best we can.

At the same time, we should be wary of blaming ourselves needlessly. If you don’t have the time for something that you’re feeling guilty about—then you simply can’t do that good work. That’s the end of the matter. As Paul said, “Don’t get weary in well-doing.”

Either way, we look at serving God as a pleasure and a privilege—maybe even, as the Prayer Book says, “perfect freedom!”


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