Lessons Learned

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  The second message in the series brought us the opportunity to consider the ways in which David was shaped for his vocation in surprising ways.  Our texts included I Samuel 16:14-23 and II Corinthians 4:7-12.

When you are driving past the bus stop and you see a group of young people wearing oversize white tops and finely checked pants, you know that you’re looking at folks who are on their way to the Culinary Institute, where they’ll continue their preparation as chefs. Similarly, when you are walking through the corridors of the hospital and encounter a quartet wearing stethoscopes trailing a woman in a white lab coat, you assume you’re seeing student nurses. In these professions, and in dozens of others, folks enter into their vocation after a period of training, apprenticeship, or coursework. You probably did something like that in one way or another.

Last week, we began our exploration of the stories surrounding King David by reading about the day that, as a young boy, he was taken aside by the old prophet Samuel and anointed as King. One of the difficulties that this presented, as we noted, was that the office of King was not vacant at the time – Saul had been anointed King some years before and he had grown pretty accustomed to the position.

David, then, finds himself in an awkward situation: he’s preparing for a position of which he has already been assured, but has no sense of when he’ll actually be called into that place. In our reading for today, we learn more about the training that David received as he waited for God’s direction. What lessons will he learn as God continues to shape him for the office that he will eventually occupy? And as we consider these events in the life of David, we need to ask ourselves how we understand them to be relevant in our own circumstances.

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

David and Saul (detail), Ernst Josephson (1878)

We’re told in verse 14 that the Spirit of the Lord had left Saul and, instead, an evil spirit from the Lord was tormenting him. It’s hard for us, as 21st-century believers living in the USA to enter into a mindset of good and evil spirits, let alone a view of the world which holds that the One whom we suppose to be nothing but goodness and light is in the business of tormenting poor unfortunate souls. However, the text we’ve received is one that comes from another time and another place, and an unsophisticated worldview which held that all things are ultimately a result of God’s work; God kills and God brings to life; God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, and so on.

In an effort to de-mystify some of the language here, a few modern readers have simply assumed that Saul was suffering from a medical condition: maybe depression, maybe anxiety disorder, or perhaps schizophrenia. While this may be helpful in terms of giving us an insight into the symptoms that Saul may or may not have displayed, it ignores the fact that Saul’s primary problems were theological in nature. He had flagrantly disrespected and violated the Lord’s presence, and so the Lord left him, and that resulted in this series of unfortunate symptoms.

Saul felt the absence of God horribly. In spite of having the best medical care available, with zero copay and zero deductible, he was overwhelmed. Fortunately for Saul, though, the people around him were brave enough to risk acknowledging his situation publicly. “Saul, you are a mess! You need help, and you need it now.”

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 - 1812)

David Playing his Harp before Saul, Christian Gottlieb Schick (1776 – 1812)

One of the lessons that young David needed to learn as he prepared for his role of King is that every one of us needs to listen to the wise counsel of those who are close to us. It’s not something that comes easily to many, and as we look at some of David’s most spectacular failures, we’ll see that it took him some time to figure this out. Yet we note that here, before he ever tries on the crown or even thinks about moving into the palace, David is learning the importance of acting upon trusted advice and having a teachable heart.

Saul is more than eager to be relieved of this distress, and so he listens to his counselors and sends for the musician to be brought before him. He finds, much to his own delight (and surely that of everyone on his staff), that the shepherd boy really does have a great voice and can play the lyre like nobody’s business.

David is brought before Saul and asked to do something for which he had prepared – even though he had no idea that’s what was happening. What I mean is this: do you suppose that David took his lyre out to the hillsides while he was hanging around with those sheep and said, “I’m going to practice and practice and practice, because you know what? Sooner or later, I’ll be called to be the personal musician of the King!”

That’s unlikely. My hunch is that he probably took along the lyre to alleviate the boredom of being alone so much; that he sang and thought and played because he thought he was all alone; in actuality, though, he was being prepared in the solitude for that great call that came through Samuel.

Perhaps as he played the lyre for a King who was in such distress, David was able to remember that God sometimes uses the unpleasant, or bitter, or painful experiences to grow us in some way for the future. Have you ever had to work for a boss that is completely unhinged (I’d be grateful if current and former church staff did not answer this one out loud)? It had to be very, very difficult to be David in that situation; he knew that he had been called to be the King, and yet of course he was not the King, and instead he was being called to soothe the dis-ease of the one for whose position he was being groomed.

Let me ask those of you who can remember being in an intensely painful or unpleasant situation: is it possible for you to look back on that time of your life and see that you experienced some growth, that you learned some lesson, that you discovered some fruit as a result of being in a difficult place? I’m not asking you if you were glad to have been there; I’m not saying that God put you there so that you’d be taught something… I’m asking whether or not you can look back at some horrible time in your life and say, “You know what? When all of that was going on, I learned ___________.”

I don’t want to spend time talking about the causes of these difficult situations; I simply want to ask you to explore whether or not you have grown through times of pain.

And if you can say, “yes, I can look to some important things that I learned while in that difficult place”, then are you able to recognize that it’s likely that you are going to be able to grow in, through, or in spite of the next painful spot in which you happen to find yourself?

I believe that one of the things that David was able to grasp while in the service of Saul is the truth that even in seasons of pain and discomfort, of horror and grief, we can grow.

Perhaps the third lesson that David was able to grasp while in this formative place with King Saul is the importance of waiting on God and honoring those with whom you are placed.

David Playing the Harp Before Saul, Ivan Ivanovich Tvorozhnikov (1848-1919)

Think about it: David knows that he’s the next King. He’s been told that by no less an authority than the Prophet Samuel. The kid leaves his house, where he’s in charge of keeping the sheep out of trouble and maybe carrying the groceries every now and then, and comes into the royal residence. He sees the luxury that surrounds the King, and he sees the King in a very, very fragile place. And look at what he does: he acts to be an anxiety-reducer in that place. In some ways, David is acting against his own best interests here. There has to be a part of David that’s saying, “You know, if old Saul finally loses it here, then I’m in! It’ll be my turn to live into the prophecy that Samuel shared!” There are all sorts of reasons why it would be to David’s advantage to hasten Saul’s descent into madness and obscurity, yet he refuses to do so. Instead, David brings life to Saul, and helps Saul to find his way back to normalcy. David does not feed the fear; instead, he seeks to defuse and disarm the fear.

There’s a word there for the church today. We live in an environment where there is every conceivable incentive to grow fear. Everywhere we turn, people are trying to get you to be more alarmed, more anxious than you were five minutes ago. Politicians tell lies and make up stories about each other; the current Presidential election is rife with fear-mongering and alarmist rhetoric; the entire culture is saturated with distrust and disgust and fear and anxiety and there is no peace.

A couple of weeks ago, the Smith & Wesson Company announced that their profits have doubled since last year. Background checks for weapons permits are on a pace to shatter the record that was set last year. Do you think people are buying all this firepower because they feel safe and secure? And do you think that anyone who owns stock in Smith & Wesson (the value of which has surged 60% in 2016) has any interest in reducing anyone’s anxiety right now?

Of course not. There’s money to be made in fear. Hate sells. Anxiety brings out the voters, brings in the money, and obliterates the truth.

And far too often, in our culture, it’s people who wear the name of Jesus who are out there leading the yelling and screaming. We feed the fear. We nurture it. We allow it to grow, when we should be seeking, as David did, to be a non-anxious presence in time of great fear. David’s eyes were not on the madness of King Saul, but on the presence and power of God.

Father Luis Espinal was a priest born in Spain, but who went to Bolivia to serve as a missionary amongst the poor in 1968. For years, he spoke out against the gangs who ran the drug trade and the government that supported those gangs. He railed against injustice, poverty, the lack of freedom of the dictatorship, the massacres, the exiles, the complicit collaboration of many with the dictatorship, drug trafficking, and the guilty silence of members of the Church. On March 21, 1980, he was leaving a movie theater when he was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a death squad. Yet just before his violent death, he wrote this brief meditation:

Now has begun the eternal “alleluia!”

There are Christians who have hysterical reactions, as if the world would have slipped out of God’s hands. They act violently as if they were risking everything.

But we believe in history; the world is not a roll of the dice going toward chaos. A new world has begun to happen since Christ has risen…

Jesus Christ, we rejoice in your definitive triumph…with our bodies still in the breach and our souls in tension, we cry out our first “Hurrah!” till eternity unfolds itself.

Your sorrow now has passed. Your enemies have failed. You are a definitive smile for humankind.

What matter the wait now for us? We accept the struggle and the death; because you, our love, will not die!

We march behind you, on the road to the future. You are with us and you are our immortality!

Take away the sadness from our faces. We are not in a game of chance…You have the last word!

Beyond the crushing of our bones, now has begun the eternal “alleluia!” From the thousand openings of our wounded bodies and souls there arises now a triumphal song!

So, teach us to give voice to your new life throughout all the world. Because you dry the tears from the eyes of the oppressed forever…and death will disappear.

Does any of that ring true with you? Have you or your friends fallen prey to “hysterical reactions”? Does it seem conceivable to you that the world is slipping out of God’s hands, somehow?

When I say it like that, you say, “Oh, no, Dave, we don’t believe that. God is still God. God is our Rock. God is our fortress.”

If that’s the case, then the challenge for this week is for you to go out there and live like that’s true. Accept the call on your life that was the call on young David: to be a non-anxious presence in the midst of a fearful world. To be the voice of reason and tolerance even as you are surrounded by those who hurl vile racism and who abuse power and who profit from decay and would foment discord. Use your voice, your presence, your song, so to speak, to speak truth and peace and grace to those around you.

I know that it’s not easy to do this. And it’s not easy to hear this. Earlier this week, in an effort to be perceived as funny and sophisticated and wise, I made a comment that was smug and dismissive and disrespectful. Someone I love came to me and said, “Do you realize how hurtful that was?” In my attempt to be well-regarded, I was instead smarmy and self-inflating, and I contributed to separation and alienation. And someone cared enough about me to pull me aside and say, “Look, Dave – is that your best self? Is that who you want to be?”

That’s what I’m asking you to do today. To show up in rooms where people are acting more irrationally than old King Saul ever did and to use the voice that God gave you to bring peace, to point to hope, and to demonstrate resurrection.

We’re in a hard place. We can expect that it’s going to get harder. Let’s go ahead and do what is right anyway, trusting God to be with us even as he was with David, in the midst of our vulnerability and risk, in a place of fear. When we are tempted to distrust, can we join together and repeat the psalm of peace? Thanks be to God, Amen.

(In)Significance

For much of 2016-2017 the people of Crafton Heights will be exploring the narratives around David as found in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.  It is our hope and expectation that we will learn something about leadership, power, humility, grace, forgiveness, and service as we do so.  Our series began with this message, and the texts included I Samuel 16:1-13 and I Corinthians 1:26-31.

OK, so you’re sitting around with someone you love, and you’ve got nothing better to do, so you decide to pop on down to the Redbox and get a movie. There have been all kinds of new releases lately, and it’ll be a great way to spend some time together.

Until you find yourself standing in front of the machine, looking at row after row of titles, saying, “Nope… nope… nope… Um – wait, who’s in that one? Oh, right. Nope… nope…” It’s horrible, isn’t it? How hard can it be to pick a film?

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Samuel and the Sons of Jesse, Wall painting in the synagogue at Duro Europos, Syria

Believe it or not, that’s the image I have as the old prophet Samuel meets with Jesse’s family. God has told him that there’s a new king to be anointed, so here is Samuel, watching each of the boys pass before him, shaking his head over and over again, “nope… Uh-uh… Nope…”

For much of this year, we’re going to be looking at the life and times of the one who is eventually chosen by God, the man we’ve come to know as King David. It seems to me that this is an appropriate time for us to consider issues of power, leadership, integrity, perspective, and God’s working in history.

First, an introduction. Most of content at which we’ll be looking in the months to come is found in the Old Testament books of Samuel. Although your Bible might refer to these as among the “historical” books, it’s important to note that they are not “history” in the way that most of us understand that word. What I mean by that is that this is not an ordered account whereby we are given a strict chronology of events, complete with footnotes and cross-references. What we have before us is more of a series of family remembrances – stories that are told from a particular perspective that aim to remind us of certain core truths again and again.

In the books of Samuel, we see a significant transition in the life of Israel. What we heard about in Judges and Ruth was a loose confederation of insignificant tribes that really had no cohesion as a functioning nation, but in the span of a few short pages, we see the emergence of a centralized nation-state that is moving into some prominence on the world stage. There are three key figures in this narrative. Samuel is the last “Judge” of Israel, and he is called by God to establish a monarchy. Samuel has incredible religious fervor and great depth of character, but he is not really a great leader and has absolutely no patience when it comes to working with other people. He is led to anoint Saul as king. Saul is an amazingly motivational leader who really knows how to work the room – whichever room he happens to be in. He has a commanding presence. Unfortunately, however, Saul is also spiritually bankrupt and mentally unstable.

Samuel and Saul are really the set-up men for the main event, however: David, the one who no less an authority than the Apostle Paul described as “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22). David is the instrument by which God transforms this motley group of clans and warlords into a functioning nation, and today’s Old Testament lesson introduces us to this remarkable person.

Our reading opens with a reminder of Saul’s inability to be king and the declaration that it’s time for something new. When God sends Samuel on a mission to anoint a new king, he is understandably frightened. After all, Saul still thinks that he is the king; if he discovers that Samuel is out there looking for a new king, well, there’s going to be trouble. After all, the job isn’t really vacant.

The Lord gives Samuel a cover story about going to make a sacrifice (which reminds me of the time that God told Moses to take the people out of Egypt: “Tell Pharaoh that you need to take a long weekend to offer a sacrifice…” That seems to be one of God’s ways of announcing regime change…). So Samuel goes into Judah and is met by a quaking group of elders from the town of Bethlehem, who are troubled by the presence of the old Judge in their town. If Samuel is there because Saul sent him, then they are afraid that Saul’s about to inflict some new round of taxation or plunder. If Samuel is there to incite rebellion against Saul, however, the elders will be held responsible and punished accordingly.

Samuel manages to quiet everyone down by saying it’s time for worship, and then he asks to have Jesse’s family invited. Well, again, this is awkward. I mean, if you’re going to have a sacrifice and worship as God’s people, why invite Jesse? His grandmother, Ruth, was from Moab. According to Deuteronomy (23:3), Moabite families – down to the tenth generation – are excluded from the assembly of God’s people. And yet, here (at God’s urging), Samuel is insisting that the worship service can’t go on until Jesse and his boys show up.

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

Jesse Presents His Sons to Samuel, James Tissot (1836-1902)

That leads us to the parade of sons with which we began this message: Jesse marches his oldest boy in and Samuel is immediately struck by the notion that this is one amazing young man. But the Lord says, “Nope. That’s not our guy.” Son after son comes in until there are seven fellows standing in the “rejected” line and no others visible. Now it’s Samuel’s turn to be perplexed, and he says as much to God as to Jesse, “Wait – isn’t there anyone else?”

“Oh, well, there’s the youngest, but he’s out with the sheep.”

Samuel and our narrator heighten the drama by bringing things to a grinding halt until this nameless afterthought could be found and brought to worship. Eventually, the young man is brought in and, even though Samuel was warned against judging anyone from the outside, he is quick to notice that this boy is special in all kinds of ways. What matters most, however, is the fact that the Lord grabbed hold of Samuel and said, “Now! This is the one!”

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

Samuel Sacrant David, Léon Bénouville (1842)

God reaches into an insignificant family in a forgotten corner of a developing nation and says, “Yes! This is the one who has a heart like me. This is the one with which I will shape the history of my people!” David is chosen, not for any quality of which he or anyone else is aware, but because God has decided to take something of apparent insignificance and use it for eternal purposes.

While young David may be striking in his appearance, what is important for us to remember this morning is that at this point, he is one of the marginal people. You’ve seen a thousand faces like his this week, as you’ve read or seen stories of Native Americans protesting a pipeline, or Syrian refugees struggling to find safety, or anonymous first responders showing up on doorsteps where who knows what is inside, or kids from this neighborhood waiting for the bus to come and take them to school. The point is that David has no credentials, no social standing, and no reason to attract the attention of the local military recruiter or scholarship officer, let alone the Lord of heaven and earth. And yet, that attention is given, even to David – even to the one who was marginalized.

Illustration may not be to scale...

Illustration may not be to scale…

In the late 1970’s, Douglas Adams produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a remarkable work of science fiction and imagination. In it, we are introduced to a device called “the Total Perspective Vortex”, which is allegedly the most horrific means of torture a sentient being can endure. Adams writes, “When you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it there’s a tiny little speck, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says, ‘You are here.’” The idea behind this torture is that the victim is forced to realize just how insignificant, how worthless, how small he or she is, and such knowledge is totally debilitating. When you see yourself in comparison to everyone and everything that ever was, is, or shall be, the logical response is “Who am I?”, and a logical consequence is having your entire sense of self obliterated. Interestingly enough, American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have experienced something like this, called the “Overview Effect”. When we realize just how small we are in comparison to everything else there is, well, it redefines us…

So this anointing of David, the great-grandson of a foreign-born refugee, the lastborn son of a sheepherder from a little town fourteen miles from nowhere, the marginalized and uncredentialed and unschooled and unworthy one – this anointing could have been the moment when David realized that he was nothing and nobody; it could have, and perhaps should have, blown his mind.

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea...

Admittedly, this may be the hokiest image you ever see on here, but I hope you get the idea…

But it didn’t. It didn’t because David chose not to compare himself to everyone and everything else. Instead of seeing himself in contrast to all that surrounded him, David saw himself encompassed by God’s care and God’s call. Instead of seeing himself alone in a world filled with people who were more competent, more powerful, wiser, smarter, or more important than he was, David chose to see himself as wrapped in the intentions and heart of God.

The anointing takes place in silence, and at the end of the day, David is still everyone’s little brother, given the grunt work to do by the family and village that do not understand what’s happened. Saul is still the king. Samuel is on his way to Ramah. The key change is unseen: the Spirit has come upon David in a new and powerful way. The anointing has received no press coverage, and its secrecy will last for years. Yet history has been changed, and the Spirit is at work. The old order, whether Saul knows it or not, has ended. The next big thing is under way as God’s Spirit works on and in and through the young boy who has been called to change the world.

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Napoleon accepts the surrender of Madrid
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

In 1809, if you asked anyone in Europe, Western Asia, or Northern Africa, what was going on, all you’d hear about was the Napoleonic wars. The Emperor of France was gobbling up territories and people in London and Rome and Moscow and Tunis and Madrid went to bed wondering what the world was coming to. The war was horrible, and in fact spilled over into North America in the form of the War of 1812.

And while Napoleon was getting all of the media attention in 1809, other things were happening. Babies were being born, for instance. A family in Coupvray, France, welcomed a young son named Louis. In Boston, two young actors named their son Edgar. A family in Shrewsbury England welcomed young Charles, and deep in the woods of Kentucky an impoverished family named their second child Abraham. Nobody cared about these children in 1809. Everyone cared about battles.

And yet today, nobody but a few historians know who fought in the Fifth War of the Coalition in 1809, or which side prevailed in the epic Walcherin Expedition. But ask people about the ways that the work of Louis Braille opens up the world for them, Edgar Allan Poe shapes imagination, or Charles Darwin engages sense of wonder at the natural world, or the impact that Abraham Lincoln has had on this nation and the world, and you’ll see that some of the seemingly insignificant events of 1809 wound up as being far more important than anything that was in the headlines.

I don’t know what the headlines of your life are right now. I don’t know where you fit in the grand scheme of things, as compared with all the other people and places and things in God’s great creation. You may well go to bed tonight thinking that you are, by many measures, insignificant. You may walk home today with a heavy heart as you know that you are surrounded by some sort of a battle that makes the Battle of Aspern-Essling look like children fighting in the sandbox. And you may be right, if that’s the way that you choose to measure those kinds of things. But if you and I can let go of that system of self-evaluation and instead think about the fact that the same Spirit that was at work in David is available to us, then we can grasp the truth of which Paul spoke in his letter to the Corinthians. We are where we are, we are who we are, by the grace of God. If we bring ourselves to God in humility and with joy, it may seem insignificant, but I’m telling you that such discipleship is wrapped in significance.

Samuel had no idea what he was doing as he followed the Spirit into Bethlehem that day. I am here to tell you that the smallest acts of obedience and faithfulness and generosity can bear amazing fruit in the hands of God. Today, this week, this year, as the headline-grabbing battles rage throughout your own life – ask God for the gift of being able to see yourself in God’s heart, that you might care for the things about which God cares, in the hopes that you will be the agent of God’s presence and provision to those who need them. Your story, our story, His story, is still being written. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Everything Matters

This Labor Day weekend, the believers at CHUP gathered to consider the ways that we do what we do, when we do it, and where we do it, impact our ability to be followers of Christ.  Our scripture texts for the morning included Luke 14:25-33 and Jeremiah 18:1-11.

Almost twenty-six years ago I was ordained as a “minister of the Word and Sacrament” by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For more than a quarter of a century, I have been paid to be a Christian. My vocation has been an amazing gift and a wonder-filled journey. It is an odd calling, as the people who love me have tried to pin me down as to exactly what I do all day. Everyone has a thought, of course:

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On Labor Day weekend, however, I’d like to take a moment to address two mythologies about my particular line of work.

Every now and then, I’ll get a call from someone who says, “Oh, Reverend, I hate to bother you with something like this, because I know how busy you are, and, well, I really shouldn’t even mention anything, but, well, if you can spare the time – even just a couple of minutes would be amazing – I wonder if you could possibly help me with…” Now, don’t get me wrong, there are times when my life is hectic and frenzied, but if I’m too busy to pray with you, then maybe I’m not doing it right.

Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, I am compelled to hear cracks like “Wow, must be nice to get paid a full time salary when you only work an hour a week.”

It is, as I have said, an odd calling. And because of that, I get it – I know the temptation that you have to roll your eyes at me when I stand up here and presume to lecture you about work and employment. “How dare you pretend to know what I go through, Pastor? After all, you work in your nice little bubble of Christianity, where everything is sunshine and roses and unicorns and rainbows. I’m not sure you know how hard it is in the real world…”

“My supervisor looks down her nose at me all day, every day.”

“Do you know how exhausting it is to try to do your job when you’re assigned to work with two or three people who care more about getting their next ‘high’ than they do about getting any work done?”

“I’m afraid to go to the bathroom in my school. How can I pay attention to anything else?”

“There are four positions in my department. As of January 1, there will be three.”

“Now, Pastor Dave, what was that you wanted to say about my job?”

Having recognized the differences in all of our experiences, let me offer two observations, one of which is theological and the other historical.

Theologically, I might remind you that work is a privilege – it’s a part of God’s gift to humanity. In Genesis, it is very clear that we had a job before we knew anything of brokenness. Adam was called to take care of the Garden before there was any mention of sin. We often treat work – especially hard work – as if it’s some sort of punishment, but that’s simply not true. Work is one of the ways that we live into the image of God. Just as God is a creator, a fashioner, a designer, so too we are called to use our strength and energy in ways that bring forth life and grace.

Here I am standing in the ruins of the "Pool of Bethesda" in Jerusalem - note that everything is made of stone!

Here I am standing in the ruins of the “Pool of Bethesda” in Jerusalem – note that everything is made of stone!

And historically, I should point out that Jesus had a job. He was what the locals called a tekton. Our traditional translations indicate that he was a carpenter, but the Greek word simply means “builder”. Since most of the homes in London were made out of wood when the Bible was being translated into English, you can understand how “builder” became “carpenter”. What I noticed when I visited the places where Jesus lived, however, like Capernaum and Jerusalem, is that so much of what exists in that part of the world is built with stone. As a tekton in that place and time, Jesus was surely no stranger to heavy lifting, or sweat, or the frustration you feel when your co-worker gives you measurements that are a quarter of an inch off.

Having said that, then, what do we hear this Labor Day weekend from Jesus, a member of and friend to the working class?

The passage you’ve heard is a difficult one by any measure, and it’s been made more so by some unfortunate translations over the years. Let’s look at what was happening.

The Resurrection of the Widow's Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

The Resurrection of the Widow’s Son at Nain (James Tissot, between 1886-1894).

Jesus was big news. The crowds were coming out time and time again because, well, Jesus put on a good show. I mean, you never knew what you were going to get: there was water turned into wine; thousands and thousands were fed miraculously; the paralyzed, blind, mute and more were healed; and who could forget the way he took on those religious hypocrites so fearlessly. There is no other way to say it than that Jesus was, well, huge. His popularity was off the charts.

And one day he turns to the crowds that find him so enthralling and he says, “You know, this is serious! This lifestyle of faith – it’s not a diversion. This isn’t a fad or an amusement. It’s not a hobby – it’s the main thing. And because it’s so important, those who follow me are expected to lay everything on the line. The kinds of things that you see me doing are foundational and world-changing – they are reflective of the purposes and intentions of God now and forever. The healings, the miracles, the teaching… all of this points to the ways that God moves and acts and dwells in this world. So if you are ‘following’ me, it has to mean more than standing around and applauding what you see as my latest parlor trick; it has to mean that you are going to care about the things that I care about, do the things that I do, go to the places where I am sent, and act like the presence and call of God has made a difference in your life 24/7/365.” In other words, we dare not “follow” Jesus the way that we “follow” celebrities or athletes on Instagram or Twitter. If we are not willing to go “all in” with Jesus, we are hobbyists or voyeurs.

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

Jeremiah, by Michelangelo (1512).

The prophet Jeremiah, who lived hundreds of years before Jesus, made much the same point as he taught Israelites about the power and sovereignty of God. We often hear these words as a statement of God’s absolute freedom and unlimited power and indeed Jeremiah indicates that God spins the history of this planet as a potter turns clay on a wheel. However, there are several places in this passage that reveal the truth that some human response and responsibility is expected. The word “if” appears throughout this text, bringing a conditionality to our relationship with God that does not exist between the potter and the clay. “If” you do this, “then” this will be the result. There is some sort of deep and intimate partnership between the Creator and that which is being crafted. Clearly God is in charge, but just as clearly we have a role to play. What we do, who we are – it all matters.

And because both Jesus and Jeremiah point to the fact that God wants all of us, all the time, there’s no time like Labor Day for the preacher to point out that this life of faith includes not just the religious stuff you do, but the entirety of who you are. Your occupation is a means by which you are called to serve the Lord.

I want to pause here and say that I’ve chosen the word “occupation” intentionally, and I want you to know that I’m thinking of everyone, not merely those who are employed. I want you to hear that word and think about the things with which you are “occupied”. The ways that we spend our time and our money and our energy and ourselves are reflections of the things that we believe to be ultimately true.

Whatever you set your hands to – whether that’s working down at the plant or watching the grandkids or sitting in an AP Biology class – it’s important to strive to do that well. It’s important because the ways that you are who you are while you do what you do will either point people closer to the things that are eternally true in Jesus Christ or distract them from the presence of God in the world.

Regular worshipers will remember, I hope, that we just finished an entire year studying the Sermon on the Mount. Think about the kinds of ways in which we are called to act: with kindness and mercy, in honesty and integrity, with humility and decency as those who are genuine and generous. None of these traits are occupationally specific – anyone can do that.

And you say, “Look, I get that, and I really want to be like that, but to be honest, I hate my occupation. My co-workers annoy me…I can’t wait to graduate…I feel so useless being retired…I resent the circumstances in my life that have forced me into this particular occupation.”

If any those things are true, then I would by all means encourage you to work towards changing your reality, but I would also remind you to refuse to compromise who you are and who you are called to represent as you live out your daily life.

Here’s the deal: if showing up here three or four times a month – or even if you get all “super Christian” on the people around you by serving as an elder or deacon or Sunday School teacher – if that’s the primary way that you show the world who you are and what you believe, then your witness is incomplete and it points to a life that has been adorned, not transformed. Deciding which day you will choose to act like you think a follower of Jesus should act is not unlike taking a bunch of Christian trinkets and decorating your life with them – they’re not really substantive, but they’re eye-catching and have a vaguely positive message.

But if you live out your faith every day at school or work or home and in your interactions with others (including the social media), then people will see a life that is fundamentally and integrally engaged with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Six months before he was assassinated in 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a group of students at the Barratt Jr. High School in Philadelphia. He challenged these young people, and the words he used to address the children ring true to us as well:

And when you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.
If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can’t be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley. Be the best little shrub on the side of the hill.

Your occupation – the ways in which you are who you are, where you are, doing what you do with whom you do it – is your number one way of serving God and reflecting God’s presence in this world.

And finally on this Labor Day weekend, as you do all of this, remember that as you go about the world conducting your business each and every day that you are constantly interacting with people who are performing their occupation. So think about what you buy and where you buy it. Is your “great deal” on shrimp propping up the slave labor trade in Thailand? Does the place where you shop pay their workers fairly and offer them good working conditions? When you go out to eat, are you a good tipper? If you can’t afford to be generous to the one who is serving your meal and cleaning up your messes, you can’t afford to eat out and you need to stay home. Remember to give your teachers and coworkers a break. You don’t know what kept them up all night. Be nice to the custodian and the receptionist. Because in a perfect world, they are all striving to do the same thing that you and I are doing – to show up each day being our best selves, seeking to reflect God’s love and truth into the world.

This weekend, and each day, show the world who you are – and show the world whose you are – by the efforts you put forth to follow Jesus in the simple tasks of daily life.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

(The speech by Dr. King quoted above is entitled “What is Your Life’s Blueprint”.  Do yourself a favor and invest twenty minutes of your day and watch him issue this challenge to the young people of Philadelphia in 1967.  If you can’t click the link below, you can paste this one into your browser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmtOGXreTOU).