I Kings 19:9-13, Matthew 22:14
Rev. Tom Herbek
February 19, 2017
Wherever we find ourselves in life, it is important for us to answer the question that God posed to Elijah, “What are you doing here?” It is a very important question for all of us in our faith journey. In her book, Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass helps me to see this in a new way. She writes:
“Would you like to join the altar guild?” asked an older woman, a member of a church where I was a member. “After all, you like to arrange flowers.”
She was a nice person, diligent in her service to the church. Most every week, she showed up early on Sunday morning to set up the altar. She ironed the altar cloths, shined the silver chalices, and laid everything out. Sounded like holy housework to me.
Instead of saying yes or no, I responded, “Why?”
“Because I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years,” she said impatiently, “and I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”
Not exactly an appealing invitation. I turned the offer down.
I suspect that the woman had a rich faith life. I always wondered what might have happened if she had answered the question this way:
“You know, I’ve been serving on the altar guild for thirty-five years. Every Sunday, I awake before dawn and come down here to the church. It is so quiet. I come into the building and unlock the sacristy. I open the drawers and take out the altar cloths and laces, so beautifully embroidered with all the colors of the seasons. I unfold them, iron them, and drape them on the altar.
“Then I go to the closet and take out the silver, making sure it is cleaned and polished. I pour water and wine. While I set the table for the Lord’s Supper, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends. I’ve meditated on what it must have been like to be there with him. I’ve considered what it will be like when we eat with him in heaven. And I’ve learned a thing or two about service and beauty and community. You know, I’d like to share that with you. I’d like you to learn that too.”
I know how I would have responded: “Sign me up.”
The difference between what happened and what might have happened clarifies an important dimension of contemporary spirituality. In the first case, she asked me to take on an obligation one that had worn her down and become rote. In the second, she would have been inviting me into an experience – and a powerful one at that. Had she answered the why question in the second way, she would have asked me to participate both in the practice of the church’s women who had learned such wisdom over many decades and in the tradition of Jesus’s last meal with his followers. To know why provides a sense of purpose to our actions. If we know why we engage in a particular activity, we experience deeper spiritual connections in our work. Why is the meaning behind any sort of work, craft, or practice.
Later in the book she shares an extraordinary poem that a friend sent her, a poem that helps us see that whatever we do, the meaning in it is found in our perspective on it. She describes it as “The Great Reversal”:
I am part of a lost generation
and I refuse to believe
I can change the world
I realize this may be a shock but
“Happiness comes from within”
is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy”
So in 30 years I will tell my children
They are not the most important thing in my
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
is more important than
I tell you this
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
but this will not be true in my era.
this is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
30 years from now I will be celebrating the 10th
anniversary of my divorce.
I do not concede that
I will live in the country of my own making.
In the future
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this earth.
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic.
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope.
“Hope?” Butler Bass thought. “This is just depressing.” Then she read a final sentence:
And all of this will come true unless we choose to reverse it.
And so she began reading the lines in reverse order, starting with the last line. As she notes, “Sometimes all you need to do is run the script backward.” Sometimes we get so tired of doing what we do, because it is an obligation, just busy work, but then something changes our perspective. There are times when it is important that we ask ourselves what God asked Elijah: “What are you doing here?”
At a retreat she was leading, a woman asked Diana Butler Bass how she should start to choose a spiritual path:
“Pick one – one activity that tugs at your heart,” I suggested. “Start there. Just one thing. Not all of them. Do one thing well, with passion, with depth, with openness and understanding. Engage it intentionally, pay attention to the practice. See where it takes you.”
What spiritual practices give you a powerful sense of freedom and direction, of mastery and maturity, of purpose in life? Do those things – that’s what.
Sometimes it is hard for us to see the opportunities in front of us. I like the translation that Richard Rohr uses of the well-known verse read earlier from Matthew 22. Rohr says that the real meaning is this: “Many are called, but few allow themselves to be chosen.”
When we allow ourselves to be chosen, it changes our entire perspective on life. There are so many opportunities for us to make a difference in our church family. One of the groups that does this in a tangible way are the people who get together regularly to knit prayer shawls for those going through tough times, and baby blankets for children who are baptized. In her book, Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To, Lillian Daniel describes such a group at her own church:
On Tuesday nights, a group gathers in our church lobby to knit prayer shawls, baby blankets, and booties for the members of our congregation. The knitting ministry meets the same night as our church’s governing board. So while we are in the conference room making big-picture decisions about the life of the congregation, just a few feet away on the couches other people are knitting for the sick, for new babies, or for those in need of any kind of healing. I think it’s a nice combination of ministry on Tuesday nights, like a check and balance system for what leadership in the church is all about.
The knitters pray over the fruits of their labor before releasing them to whoever may need the blessing, and churches all over the world make prayer shawls. I still have the prayer shawl I received from my current church when I was sick, and I still have the prayer shawl I received from my former church when my mother passed away. I went on to inherit the prayer shawl her church made for her when she first fell ill. They all lie around my house as extra blankets in the family room, ordinary objects infused with prayer in the midst of our ordinary lives.
The prayer shawl didn’t cure my mother’s fatal illness. But there is no question in my mind that it was a conduit of healing. It remains a symbol to me of how all our churches are knit together by the Holy Spirit. New babies receive a handmade gift to keep them warm, blessed by prayer before it is given away. It’s a symbol of a beautiful biblical metaphor that goes back many thousands of years. Psalm 139 reads, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.”
It seems that people have been knitting for one another forever, perhaps ever since God, the original knitter, knit each one of us together in our mothers’ wombs. So, indeed, we are wonderfully made.
When I feel discouraged, unworthy, or damaged, I like to remember that the Divine Knitter knit me together and made me wonderful. And when I feel cocky, superior, or smug, I remember that She did the same for everyone else, too.
When we allow ourselves to be chosen, we see what we are involved in as important. We answer the question, “What are you doing here?” in whole new ways. British philosopher John Ruskin once said it well: “The primary reward for human toil is not what you get for it, but what you become by it.”
Many are called, but few allow themselves to be chosen. When we allow ourselves to be chosen, to do those things, and create those things, and live out those things that enable us to become more of the person we were created to be, then we will know much better what we are doing here. We just have to allow it to happen. And God will make sure we have lots of chances.
As Howard Thurman once said in one of his sermons: “Don’t’ ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
May this always be a church family where we help each other to come alive, so that, when asked, “What are you doing here?” we can each answer, “I am coming alive!”