March 3, 2013
Rev. John Watts
JOURNEY TO HOPE: WORK
An ad appeared in the San Diego Union almost fifty years ago. May 19, 1963. It was in the “jobs wanted” section of the classifieds. It read:
EXPERIENCED administrator — Construction
and related fields; ability proven by past
results. Young, flexible, & untiring. Unlimited
capacity for hard work — thrives on responsibility.
Take complete charge or work as assistant.
Presently employed. Will make initial sacrifices
for attractive future.
That ad is part of the folklore of my family. It was written by my Uncle Ken Cook. He was 26 at the time. I think he was fudging a little when he said he was “presently employed”. The real story is he was desperate for a job. He had moved back home toSan Diegobecause his wife couldn’t standMinnesotawinters. They had two small children, nowhere to live, and no way to support their family.
He got a job from that ad. It paid $1.25 an hour. But as it turned out, it was his big break. He did end up with an “attractive future”. He recently wrote his autobiography. Though he’s well past retirement age, he’s still working. I can’t imagine my Uncle Ken not working, not succeeding, not picking himself back off the ground whenever necessary and succeeding again.
I like to think an ad like that could still lead to a fabulous career track. But I’m not so sure. There are a lot of very talented, highly educated young men and women with “an unlimited capacity for hard work” who are still looking for that first big break. We’re living in a time when college grads are concluding that the “dream job” they’ve been chasing for years was just a dream. Many, and I know many in this church, are either out of work or looking for something better than the job they have. And a great many more are in jobs that leave the deeper gifts God has given them untapped. But they’re stuck. There are bills to pay.
Our Journey to Hope reaches milepost 3 today. We’re talking about work. Today we take the classified ad section out of our backpack. I’m not even seeing a “jobs wanted” section here. I am seeing very few jobs listed. I know most are posted on line these days. And we all know that for every job listed there is a line of people eager and waiting to fill it.
Work is a big, big part of our lives. And there are two ways of looking at work. It’s a necessary evil. We may not like it, in fact we may hate the job we have, but it beats going hungry. That’s one way of looking at it. We work to survive. But if that’s all work is, why is my Uncle Ken still working when he’s almost 76? He’s not hungry. Why are you who are retired finding more challenging things to do than sit in an easy chair and watch television? This church could not continue without all the wonderful volunteer help we get, and it comes largely from our seniors. Even when we don’t have to work, we need to work, because work is much more than a necessary evil. It is also a wonderful blessing from God that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.
Many of these basic subjects we’re dealing with in this series are touched upon in the opening verses of the Bible. Last week we talked about self-esteem and we looked at Genesis 1:26. We were made in the image of God. That’s a pretty good reason to feel good about ourselves. The week before we were talking about relationships and we read Genesis 2:18. “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
Work is also introduced early in the Bible. Both as a positive blessing and as a curse. God said to Adam and Eve: “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill the earth! Take charge! Be responsible for fish in the sea and birds in the air, for every living thing that moves on the face of the earth” (Genesis 1:28, The Message). In other words, get to work! This is work in the sense of a great adventure of creativity and discovery. Then sin enters the picture and the Garden of Eden can no longer be their home. That’s when God says, “Cursed is the ground because of you . . . In the sweat of your brow, you shall eat bread” (Genesis 3:17,19). Here we are introduced to the concept of work just to survive. It’s not going to be easy. It was easy in the Garden of Eden. But it’s not going to be easy any more.
These are two very different understandings of work. We live with them both. We need to survive. We need to keep the bills paid and the wolf away from the door. And we also need to find fulfillment in doing what we were created to do. We were created to share our gifts with the world. To make the world a better place. To participate in God’s ongoing creation. We need both. A fortunate few find both in the work they do. But however you find both, you need to find both. You don’t want to starve physically. But neither do you want to starve spiritually.
Our scripture today captures two of Jesus’ disciples in a less than flattering moment. Today’s scripture is pretty good evidence that God had something to do with the Bible as it has been handed down to us. If it was all up to the disciples, I’m quite sure they would have edited out this little section.
James and John are the ones who don’t look so good. They ask to be seated on either side of Jesus when they get to heaven. They want some glory and some honor. It sounds pretty ridiculous. It sounds real petty. But let’s try to see it from their point of view.
The disciples had given up a lot to follow Jesus. Why would they do that if there was not some reward waiting for them? If not in this life, then at least in the next life. That’s all they wanted. Just a little assurance that this following Jesus thing would turn out to be worth it in the long term. Because apparently in the short term it wasn’t feeling very worth it.
We know all about rewards. Here’s a paycheck in our backpack. That’s the reward for the “sweat of our brow”. We work hard for our money. But see, our situation is quite different from that of the disciples. Because we get our reward now. They had to wait for theirs. They gave up their material things like this in order to live out their passion for Jesus. What do we do? We give up our passion in order to get material things. All too often we do. And it’s not a very good trade.
So here’s the question: Is there a way we can live out our passion and earn a paycheck and make the world a better place? Or is that too much to ask? When we aim for it all do we end up stretched so thin that we end up with nothing? Or, do we end up in our default mode of giving up our passion in order to earn the paycheck that will fund the material side of life?
James and John are nervous that there might not be any rewards at all. They’re just saying, “Jesus, if there’s nothing for us in this life, all we’re asking is for a little something in the next life. Just a little honor and glory.”
Jesus doesn’t seem to appreciate the request. The other disciples even less so. It tells us they lost their temper with James and John. It was a tense time for the disciples. And then Jesus gets them all together to settle things down. They have a little “come to Jesus” meeting. And Jesus helps them see that the reward they’re after is not just in the next life. It’s in this life, too. It’s in work. But not just any work. It’s in work that allows them to use their God-given gifts for the good of all. Work that serves others and doesn’t just serve themselves.
You see, that’s what this little spat in the disciples’ inner circle was all about. It was about “what’s in it for me” thinking as opposed to what’s needed for the greater good. James and John wanted personal blessings. Jesus wanted them to see that personal blessings follow when we care about more than just personal blessings. Jesus came “to serve, not to be served.” It’s in service that others are blessed. And it’s in service that we too are blessed. It’s a blessing to find in our work more than just a paycheck. It’s a blessing to find the reason for which we were created.
And the other thing Jesus is saying to his disciples is that if we are going to find the reason for which we were created, we are going to find it together. They were on a journey together, as we are on a journey together. One rather important thing about traveling
together — you need to think about others and not just about yourself. The idea is for the group to arrive safely at their destination together.
It’s like the old joke about the airplane passenger who insisted on sitting in first class even though he had only paid for economy. Several flight attendants tried to get him to move, but each time he said the same thing, “I have saved for a year for this trip toNew Yorkand I insist on flying toNew Yorkfirst class.” He wouldn’t budge. The plane couldn’t take off until everyone was in their assigned seat, so finally the captain came back to talk some sense to this stubborn passenger. He whispered something in the man’s ear and immediately the man got up and walked back to where he was supposed to be. The flight attendants couldn’t believe it. One asked, “What did you say to him?” The captain said, “I told him first class is not going toNew York.”
There’s a less than funny story about this same subject in the book of Numbers (chapter 16). Moses is leading a journey to hope. Their destination is the Promised Land. At the moment they are bogged down somewhere in the Sinai desert. There are some unhappy campers. And then the simmering discontent breaks out into a full blown rebellion. It’s called “Korah’s rebellion”. Altogether about 250 of the Israelites decided they weren’t happy with the leadership of Moses. They made it known they weren’t following Moses any more. God intervened. We had some bizarre and very sad news out ofFloridathis week. A man went to bed and his bedroom fell into a giant sinkhole. The man hasn’t been seen since. Something similar happened here. God caused the earth to open up and swallow all those who were in rebellion. That took care of that! When a group is traveling together, they need to stay together. They need to work together and move together in the same direction. They were bound for the Promised Land. There was no room for any who had some other destination in mind.
And so Jesus has this conversation to clarify with his disciples their marching orders. It’s all about service, not selfishness. We get our reward in working together to see that we aren’t the only ones who get a reward. That was his message to his disciples back then. And that is his message to his disciples today. That is his message to his disciples here atNampaFirstUnitedMethodistChurch.
There aren’t many of us who earn a paycheck from our service to this church. I am one of a very few. But all of us can find here work that gives meaning to our lives. Work that blesses others and also blesses ourselves. Some have more time for that than others, I know. Some will rearrange priorities to make time that they didn’t think they had once they see that this is work that really matters. And I’m not talking about church work the way we usually talk about church work. Whatever your image is — committees or working in the kitchen or singing in a choir — I’m quite confident I’m talking about something else. Because this is an image of church that is foreign to most of us, your pastor included. But this is church the way church could be and would be if we truly let Jesus lead. We think of church as a noun. But what if church, this church, were a verb? Let’s take a look.
(YouTube Video: “ReThinkChurchWeek 1, What if Church Were a Verb?”)
You see, I have this crazy vision of leading a church that looks more like that than like this. Not so much in here as out there. Sharing the gifts God has given us, that may or may not be fully utilized in our places of employment, in ways that will truly make a difference. Changing other lives and changing our own lives in the process. The disciples of Jesus left their “things” behind to follow their passion. I believe modern-day disciples are called to do the very same thing. And I believe that, as my Uncle Ken put it in that classified ad, Jesus is looking for disciples with an “unlimited capacity for hard work.” I might add, also an unlimited capacity for the joy that comes from serving others.
This video may have spurred for you some ideas about what might change for this church if this church were to be a verb, and not just a noun. There’s a little circle to fill in on your Connection Card this morning, in the “Next Steps” section. I’m just asking you to send me an e-mail with your ideas about new things this church could and should be doing.
Gus discovered the joy of serving others late in life. His life, like many lives, had basically been all about himself. Now he was dying. He was bitter, he was afraid, he was depressed. It felt like he really hadn’t accomplished anything that mattered in his life.
Then one day he noticed a five-year-old child in the hallway of his hospice facility. He asked a nurse, “What’s she doing here?” The nurse explained that she had fallen off a tractor, cutting off oxygen to her brain. The result was paralysis. This child could hear but she could not see or talk.
The next morning, Gus walked past the child’s room. “Who’s taking care of that kid?” he shouted at the nurses desk. “Maybe you should,” one of the nurses shouted back.
He went back to his room. He couldn’t stop thinking about that little girl. Later that evening he went into her room. He said hello. She made no response. He tried a second time. Nothing. Then he touched her hand and took hold of one of her fingers. The little girl squeezed his hand. That’s when it happened. That’s when Gus was transformed from a bitter, fearful, angry person to one who could love and serve a five-year-old.
For weeks, Gus and the little girl “talked” to each other through handshakes. He read her stories and played her favorite music. He found a little wagon, placed her carefully inside, and took her for rides down the hallways.
A nurse said this: “When Gus died, he died smiling. He was no longer Gus the fearful patient. Now he was Gus the friend of a five-year-old.”
Lord Jesus, put us to work doing your work. Bless us in our jobs. Bless those who need jobs or need different jobs. But whether it be in our jobs or in our church or in the course of our daily lives, may we be about the work that really matters, the work that is its own reward, service in your name. Amen.