April 28, 2013
This is the time of year when many young people are getting ready to graduate from high school, college, or graduate school. They are most likely spending a lot of time asking themselves, “what am I supposed to do now?” or if they aren’t, their parents are likely asking the question for them. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out the right profession to pursue, the job that we assume will shape so much of our identity.
As much as we need an income, a way to make a living, we also need an answer to the question that we will be asked time and time again for the rest of our lives. “So what do you do?” Perhaps some of you look forward to being asked the question, and relish the opportunity to answer, “I am the CEO of a Fortune 500 company,” or “I am a professional stunt man” or “I’m the lead singer in a rock band.” But I think more than a few of us dread the question. We do not enjoy having to pull out our resumes for public inspection.
Some of you who have highly technical jobs may not be able to easily explain to other people what you do. Others of you may be instructed by your government employer to evade the question. I started to dread the question when I first graduated from seminary. When I answered, “I’m a minister” my conversation partner would either be completely stumped as to what to say next or would launch into an extended discussion of their own religious beliefs when all I wanted to do was get past them to the buffet table.
The question poses a special challenge to people who are unemployed, or “in between jobs.” It is also an awkward one for those whose work is uncompensated, whether raising children or running a household or caring for an ailing spouse or parent. How do you answer the question when you have no pithy title to put on a business card?
In other cultures, “what do you do” is not the first question people ask you. It’s some version of “who is your family?” or “what village are you from?” Surely I am more than what I do. But in our highly mobile, individualistic culture what I do is considered more important than anything else one might know about me. Given the weight this question has assumed in our lives, it is little wonder that some people are driven to despair for lack, or loss, of an answer to it.
Yet consider this: we have no idea what Jesus actually did for most of the years of his life. We know he was the son of a carpenter, and perhaps he practiced his father’s trade, but none of the gospel writers ever say that, it’s only speculation. To his biographers it was not an important question to ask or answer. “How did Jesus make a living?” was not so interesting to them as “how did Jesus make a life?”
The answer we hear from Jesus’ own mouth in today’s passage is, love. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This is how he lived his life, and how he tells us to live ours. It was a message with immediate implications for the early church, which was faced with the question of whether or not Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews. The answer Peter receives in today’s reading from Acts is that love is greater than the distinctions that people make among themselves, that he is to love his Gentile brother. The “love ethic” of the early followers of Jesus was what attracted converts to their community, who were amazed that love could break down the barriers between Jews and Greeks, men and women, enslaved and free people, all of whom were one in Christ.
Even today, when there are so many other values vying for our loyalty, love is what matters most to us. Before I conduct a funeral I always sit down with the family and friends of the deceased and ask them, what made this person special? What is important to say about them? I have never heard anyone answer the question, “The great thing about Dad was that he made $200,000 a year. He was always buying us cool clothes and taking us on expensive vacations. That’s what I really appreciated about Dad.” Instead they might say, “Dad’s job was demanding but he made time to coach my softball team. When he got home at night he would play with us. He could have made more money in another job but he turned it down because it involved too much travel.”
I have also never heard anyone say, “The thing I’ll always remember about Joyce was that she had so many advanced degrees.” Instead they might say, “Joyce’s clients loved her because she was so friendly and she always went out of her way to help. She really cared about people and that’s why she was so good at what she did.”
We are less likely to be remembered for the answer to the question, “what did she do?” than for the answer to the question, “how did she do it?” The process of finding meaning in our lives has less to do with finding exactly the right job and more to do with the quality of person we become in the course of our work, whether that work is paid or unpaid. Are we seeking to fulfill the great commandment to love one another in the way we work and live? Are we pursuing love as the ultimate goal of whatever we do?
When I was in college I went to a retreat on “Finding God’s Will.” I looked forward to this because I really wanted to figure out what God wanted me to do with my life. Should I go into ministry, as my campus minister had encouraged me? Did I really want to be a Presbyterian and spend the rest of my life going to meetings? Should I marry this guy I had been dating? I eagerly looked forward to being able to discover God’s will for my life.
But as the retreat leader began speaking, I realized he had something different in mind. He said, “Let me describe how most of you probably think of God’s will. You think that God has a map drawn up for your life, a plan that shows what you should be doing. The map shows that here you should go to college A, and at this point you should marry person B, and definitely not person C. Here it shows what career you are meant to pursue, and here are the three children you are supposed to have, and here is where you should live. God has a plan for every detail of your life.”
“But the hard thing about this map is that you don’t have a copy of it. So you have to try to figure out, as best you can, what it says. Sometimes this occurs by trial and error, as when you marry the wrong person and later look back on it and say, well, I guess it wasn’t God’s will that I marry person C, or when you take job A and realize later that you really should have taken job B. If you had just followed God’s map for you, you could have avoided all that trouble.”
He went on to say, “Well, I believe that God actually does not have a map of your life. But God does have a will for you. God has only one will for you: God wants you to love. Whomever you marry, God wants you to love that person. Whatever career you go into, God wants you to love your co-workers or your clients. Wherever you live, God wants you to love the people in your neighborhood.” And then he quoted St. Augustine, whose motto was, “Love, and do what you will.” Let your actions be guided by love, and stop searching for that elusive roadmap.
In that moment I realized that God had entrusted me with the freedom to create my own life and make my own choices. God was not interested in my answer to the question, “What do you do?” God was interested in my answer to the question, “How do you live?”
We are more than what we do. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” We are more than what we do.
Jesus was also more than what he did, which on the surface, wasn’t much. He died young and left behind no children, no property, no business, no writings, not even a church. He chose the pursuit of love of God and neighbor as the goal of his life, and in the end he sacrificed his life to reach that goal. And this great love is what he is remembered for, not any professional achievement or material success. As a boy of twelve among the elders in the temple he said that he must be about his father’s business, a business which no one since has ever confused with carpentry.