By The Rev. William David Thompson
[Vespers Sermon preached in November, 2006 at Granite Farms Estates, a retirement community in Media, Pennsylvania; most of the residents are Christians.]
I’m not sure how you responded to the Scripture just read. If it was talking to me, it called me holy and beloved and called me to an outrageous quality of life for which I am no more prepared than the man in the moon. I am supposed to clothe myself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. And, it goes on to call me to forgiveness and a dozen other qualities that I can’t begin to display. My wife can tell you how far I have to go!
The Bible and the hymn book and the sermons we hear are always calling us to perfection. The words are everywhere:
All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give,
Bring the full tithes into the storehouse,
All that is within me bless his holy name.
It’s easy to become cynical about all this pressure to excel. What we know is there is no way we can . . . .
Surrender all to Jesus, or give a full tithe of our income—the gross, that is, including interest and dividends, before taxes (well, maybe we could do that),
Bless God’s holy name with all that is within us.
What I want to say is, “Hey, give me a break!”
And the Scripture passage ends by laying another one on us: Whatever you do in word and deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.
It’s easy for us to become cynical about those extreme demands on us. Oh, did I leave out the really heavy one? Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. I’m not sure that any of us ever believed that’s what God really expects of us. The reality is that we are all well-meaning pragmatists. We have learned in these long years we have lived that we can live a reasonably acceptable Christian life without taking the Bible’s injunctions literally. What we tell ourselves is that these extreme demands on us are really just a way of getting our attention, that they are rhetorical devices to make us sit up and take notice. Or, if we are a bit more sophisticated and know something about the Semitic culture and language, we know that in Middle Eastern culture people talk that way—in extremes. We hear it in the ranting of the Iranian president, who talks of “pushing Israel into the sea” or “wiping it off the face of the earth.” It’s their way of making a point as strong as possible. Jesus and his followers were part of that Eastern culture, and that’s just the way they talked, we say.
So how big, for us, is whatever? How big, for that matter, is everything? Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. Is that just rhetoric?
Let’s slice that passage a bit differently. Let’s define whatever and everything in terms of the diversity of things that make up our lives — rather than some level of perfection. Rather than worrying about how to surrender all to Jesus, or calculating our tithes in the way we think the Bible means, or worrying about becoming perfect, let’s look at the variety in the way we live our lives: doing business, living with the people around us, and using our spare time. I would like to think that all these areas constitute the whatever that Paul spoke about.
You may no longer be doing business in the way you once did when you went to the office or school or hospital every day and brought home a paycheck every two weeks. But business is all about money — how it’s earned and spent. Therefore, all of us are involved in the world of business almost without our being aware of it. We shop, we mange our investments, we calculate our taxes; we may even buy and sell on E-Bay!
Certainly, for us who call ourselves Christian, handling money is an important concern. You have certainly heard during stewardship week at your church that Jesus spoke more about money than any other topic. Supporting your church and providing for the poor, the homeless, the victims of disasters is part of the whatever you do. But increasing numbers of Christians are looking critically at their investments to weed out the use of invested funds in companies that manufacture guns and cigarettes, that increase global warming, that exploit workers with substandard wages. Whatever you do.
And living with the people around us: we have learned early in life to be nice to people. For one thing, it usually works. Not that it’s all that easy. We all have to deal with difficult people — people who live in this community, maintenance workers we have contact with, even members of our families. The magazines and TV shows are full of advice about getting along with people.
What has helped me most is a whole different way of coming at this. You won’t hear it anyplace except in a gathering of Christians — and rarely even there. It is Jesus’ way: Inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers, Jesus said, “you have done it unto me.” What he is saying is to treat people as if they were Jesus himself. That’s a pretty radical idea! If we could see that selfish, demanding, unpleasant daughter-in-law as Jesus, would it make a difference? Or, see Jesus in the face of a neighbor we usually try to avoid, or someone who serves us at a meal, or during an illness, would it make a difference? Seeing Jesus in others is clearly part of the whatever.
In my experience, I have never heard a preacher talk about spare time. But it has to be part of the whatever Paul is talking about. For retired persons, spare time is a wonderful gift. Getting some is a reason to retire. How much of that time is spent in front of the tube! Like most people, we have enjoyed the cops and robbers shows, the hospital dramas — now becoming more and more ridiculous. We have never spent much time on soap operas or situation comedies, and I have yet to watch a so-called “reality show.” I guess that makes me a little weird! But increasingly I am turning off the shows that feature people shooting each other, or engaging in recreational sex, or shouting at each other over differences in political opinions. I think God is, finally, getting to me with another whatever verse: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure . . . think on these things. (Phil 4:8)
Let’s be honest: none of us can measure up to the perfection that is held up for as a model. For one thing, in Christ we are forgiven our sins. But one theologian has said, “That the primary reason for those passages is to remind us how far short we fall of Jesus’ life and how much we need the fullness of Christ’s life in us to come anywhere close.” What we can do is to become aware of the whatever in our lives, asking for the powerful presence of the indwelling Christ in the use of money, in our relationships with the people around us, and in our spare time.
Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Amen.