Saint James Fordham • Proper 28c • Tobias Haller BSG
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work…+
How often have you been asked questions like this: What sort of business are you in? What kind of work do you do? This is often one of the first things to come up when you meet a new person. In fact, in some times and cultures, what you do for a living was and is so connected with your identity that it becomes your name. Any us who bear names like Baker, Smith, Collier, Sawyer, Cooper, Taylor, Joiner, Miller, Porter and so on, can tell what one of our ancestors did for a living. My own ancestors, on my mother’s side, bore the name of Clark — so I know that somebody in my ancestry was a minister! Even today, though we don’t have names like Sidney Salesman, Sondra Surgeon or Clarence Computer Technician, work is — for many of us — such a part of our day-to-day experience that it can almost become our identity. We can lose ourselves in our work; we can “get married to our jobs,” and end up neglecting our real family. We can become so attached to our jobs that when retirement comes we don’t know what to do with ourselves.
Work, work, work… Hasn’t it always been that way? Looks like it! Those who study human prehistory see work as so much a part of human identity that they consider the discovery of tools — rocks shaped into hammers or knives or spearheads — as the marker that separates the subhuman from the human. As far as they are concerned, the earliest humans aren’t those who may have thought great thoughts, told wonderful stories, or sung songs deep into the night, but the ones who picked up stones to grind seeds or club animals.
You probably remember the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the ape-man uses a bone to club a pig to death, he steps across the anthropological line in the sand and becomes a human being. Work, then, is deeply connected with human life, with the basic biological fact that food must be gathered and prepared, the young cared for, the old and sick helped: human society depends on work.
Yet who doesn’t have a love/hate relationship with work. I doubt if there is anyone here so fortunate always to love every moment of their work. Many of us, even those who enjoy their jobs most of the time, will find there are moments — or hours — of tedium, distress, or fatigue. And most people in this busy world of ours work in drudgery and hardship from the beginning of each day to its dreary, bone-tired end.
Most simply put, work is not play. As Sir James Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, once said, “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” Peter Pan, you may recall, was the boy who refused to grow up. He wanted to remain in the world of childhood where all the work is done for you; and the biological necessities of food, clothing and shelter are all provided by someone else.
There is more than a bit of this attitude running through our religious history. Most of our biblical texts come from a time when almost all work was drudgery. The story of Adam and Eve paints a picture of humankind in paradise created at first to do at most a little gardening, living off the abundant fruit of the trees. When they fell from grace, they took up work, the sweaty-browed tilling of the soil to earn their bread, and work was a part of the curse occasioned by their sin. So our work has long been seen as a part of that inherited guilt. Many in the Jewish and Christian traditions have understood freedom from work as a sign of God’s grace restored — and looked forward to that “Land of Rest.” +++ This is just what happened in the community to whom Paul wrote the letter we heard today. The Thessalonians, quick to grab the good news that the Lord was about to come, got carried away by it, and some of them began to act as if the world was literally about to end, giving up working for a living, and sponging off the church as they waited for the coming of the Lord.
A few went even further, claiming that the day of the Lord had already come! In their overenthusiastic conversion to Christianity, they’d gotten the wrong end of the stick. +++ Not that the stick wasn’t there to be grabbed! Paul himself, in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, sowed the seeds of this misunderstanding by emphasizing “that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” and warning them all to “keep awake.” And unfortunately the urgency of his tone had the effect of convincing some of them that it meant they should close up shop and wait for the rapture!
So when Paul wrote his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, (in part to deal with the problems created by his First Letter) he used language much more like what we heard in today’s Gospel. Hold on! The end is not yet, and a whole lot of stuff is going to happen before the end comes; so back to work, people! +++ The same message holds today. We are a bit less frantic about the end of the world now than folks were just before the year 2000. I’m not the only one here, I trust, who stocked up on bottled water and extra batteries! Well, I think I’ve still got some of that vintage water in the kitchen cupboard — Chateau Hudson 1999!
But some people went whole hog — they really believed that not only might there be a few problems with utilities caused by the Y2K bug, but that the actual end of the world was nigh. They sold homes, gave up jobs, and traveled out into the middle of nowhere to wait for the Lord to appear in the clouds to come and fetch them. They were, to say the least, disappointed.
People have been led astray for centuries by some mistaken prophet or other, announcing that the Day of the Lord is near. Some still are led astray, even after all the failed promises. But we have received different instructions, instructions from our Lord, and Saint Paul. Jesus tells us to be like servants doing their jobs when the master comes home. Listen to today’s gospel with that in mind. “Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!,’ and ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be terrified, for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”... “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”
You see, when you read the text this way, Jesus is not saying these are signs of the end, but signs of the present! The world is a dangerous place and full of many terrible things, but the coming of the Lord will be unmistakable and swift and most importantly, without a sign and without a warning! What Jesus said is the Gospel truth: the world has seen countless false prophets arise; we have seen many nations rise against many others, seen terrible famines and plagues. We’ve even seen a comet fly through the heavens and smash into the planet Jupiter,
leaving a hole in it five times as big as the whole earth! And yet the end is not yet.
No, the Son of God will return without warning. Now, when someone says something is going to happen without warning, what should you do? What do the Scouts say? Be prepared! So Jesus tells us to be always ready, to be about God the Father’s business, as he was himself from his childhood on: doing the work God gives us to do and witnessing to God’s love and patience. As Saint Paul says, we are to work, and not to be weary in doing what is right. And “right” does not just mean morally right, but right in the sense of appropriate. When we find the right work, or when we work with a right attitude, an element of joy can enter it — true, there may be a good bit of drudgery, but if we can find the core happiness in being occupied, devoting even our secular work to God as we realize that our work is for the good of society — then our work can bring us joy, and be a gift to God’s glory. This lies at the heart of the stewardship of our talents: the work we dedicate and then do to God’s glory.
The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a Jesuit — you know, the folks who run that little University down Fordham Road! The Jesuit motto is: To the Greater Glory of God. Everything — everything — is done with that in mind. Hopkins put it this way: “It is not only prayer that gives God glory but work. Smiting on an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping, scouring, everything gives God glory... He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should.”
Let us, then, sisters and brothers, so pitch our work to God’s glory — minding our business with the mind of Christ. Let us each of us do the work that we have been given to do, whatever it is, to the glory of God, finding in each act, however humble, some way to serve. Let us open our eyes and hearts and minds to see that work is a means to a greater good, and be found at work when the master comes. Let us mind our business by setting our minds and hearts upon it. Let us work each day as if God were our only boss, never wearying in doing what is right, serving each other to his honor and glory.+